It may be time for a reality check, or another episode of that long-running sitcom “Hapless Liberals Try to Make Themselves Feel Better” – a barrel of laughs each week, except there’s no such show. There ought to be, for all the times since last summer when hapless liberals said, see, Donald Trump said something so outrageous that even Republicans will drop him like a hot potato. Many Republicans did drop him like a hot potato. There was that Never Trump movement spearheaded by the National Review, the magazine founded by the man who invented modern American conservatism, William F. Buckley. There were the sixteen other candidates in the Republican primaries who explained, each in their own way, that everything that Trump was saying was more than absurd – it was downright dangerous.
They’re gone, and the Never Trump movement is gone too. The Republican base didn’t drop Donald Trump. They embraced him – so it was “join or die” (politically) for establishment (old hands at this) Republicans, and they decided they’d rather not die – except for Paul Ryan and a few others. They’ll come around. The Republican base is all they’ve got – conservative principles don’t matter much if you’re not in office. Now they’ll have to start all over and sell those conservative principles, once again, to a Republican base that doesn’t know what the hell they’re talking about and doesn’t much care, not the Republican base they had once imagined.
Oops. It seems that Donald Trump was inevitable, because of the actual nature of the Republican base, a mixture of angry white Christian nationalists and the Prosperity Gospel crowd, and unstoppable, because nothing Trump was saying offended them at all. John McCain wasn’t really a war hero. Mexicans, and anyone else from down that way, were rapists and murderers and drug dealers. We should humiliate and shame even our closest allies, because they’re laughing at us – make those bastards pay big bucks for the security we provide them. If not, they can develop their own damned nuclear arsenals.
The list goes on and on. It was all absurd, and none of it made a damned bit of difference. In fact, the audacious absurdity of all of it excited the base on that side, and worried the liberals on the other side. Trump was untouchable. Maybe he’d be untouchable in the general election.
That was, and is, the worry, but everyone needs a reality check now and then, and Slate’s Jamelle Bouie offers this:
Donald Trump doesn’t believe in bad publicity. It is why, over the past week, he’s worked to dominate the general election’s news cycle the same way he dominated the Republican primaries: through attacks and controversy. He has succeeded in yet again blanketing cable news, blocking Hillary Clinton from anything like equal time.
The idea is that this will sink Clinton and boost Trump the same way a similar stream of outrageous statements and attacks kept Trump’s Republican opponents from building steam with voters and overtaking him in the polls.
Bouie questions that, because what worked in the primaries may not work in the general:
First, let’s recap the past few days in Trump news. On Monday, he released an Instagram video accusing former President Bill Clinton of sexual assault. A few days earlier, in an interview with the Washington Post, he resurrected conspiracy theories around the 1993 death of White House official Vince Foster, which was ruled a suicide by both law enforcement and subsequent investigations. Despite this, fringe voices on the far right have long argued that the Clintons – who were friends of Foster – were involved in his death. Trump called these theories “very serious.”
On Tuesday, Trump attacked New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, for “not doing her job,” an unusual move for a party nominee. By Wednesday, Trump was also fending off attacks around his charitable giving, or lack thereof; not only did he lie about his $6 million fundraiser for veterans’ causes (he didn’t raise nearly that much), but he never gave a promised $1 million out of his own pocket. And on Thursday, Trump continued a previous thread by mocking Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren for her one-time claim of Native American heritage, calling her “Pocahontas” and attacking her for her “big mouth.”
To sum up, in less than a week, Trump generated enough offensive rhetoric and bad behavior to fuel a month’s worth of negative coverage.
If all publicity is good publicity, then it is possible this helps Trump succeed in the general election and keeps Clinton from moving the campaign toward her turf – the realm of plans and issues. Or at least, that’s the theory.
That’s the theory, but here’s the reality-check:
The latest national poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal asks respondents to give their feelings on the remaining candidates, from “very positive” to “very negative” and provides a long-term view as well, with results from as far back as the 1990s. In February 2011 – well before Trump announced his campaign – 26 percent of Americans said they had a “very or somewhat” positive view of the real estate mogul, 29 percent said they had a “very or somewhat” negative view, and 40 percent were neutral. By the time Trump entered the race for president in July 2015, after years of sharpening his divisive presence on the national stage, just 16 percent were neutral, versus 26 percent with a positive view and 56 percent with a negative one.
What does Trump look like a year later after consolidating most Republicans behind his banner? Just 29 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the real estate mogul. Fifty-eight percent hold a negative one. Just 12 percent are neutral. Look to other polls and you see the same stasis. In June 2015, according to YouGov, 32 percent of Americans held a favorable view of Trump versus 60 percent who felt the reverse. Today, those numbers are 35 percent versus 61 percent, with the largest gains among Republicans (68 percent have a favorable view) and the steepest declines among self-described independents and Democrats. Among the former, Trump’s unfavorability rose 15 percentage points to 66 percent. Among the latter, it rose 7 percentage points to 87 percent.
Which is just to say that over the past year Trump’s attention-at-all-costs strategy has done nothing but tank his ratings among the public at large…
That’s the dry data, but Bouie moves beyond that:
Yes, Clinton’s ratings are also low (although better than Trump’s), but she’s also fighting a contentious primary. If and when the Democratic Party unifies, her popularity will go up accordingly as Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents find reasons to like Clinton. And once the race achieves this equilibrium – two nominees leading two united parties – the popularity gap will likely look even worse for Trump, as he will remain a historically unpopular candidate, while she will return to being a modestly unpopular one.
Hapless liberals can now feel a bit better, but Bouie is more interested in how this Trump thing happened:
If the media didn’t make Trump popular – if it’s actually done the reverse – then how did he win the Republican primary? One answer is that Trump has broken the rules of politics – he’s killed the dungeon master, changed the character sheets, rewritten American politics into a game of his own making. This isn’t just wrong. It buys into the myth of Trump as a force of will and power who can reshape reality to his liking.
The better explanation, the one that treats Trump like an important force but not a dispositive one, is that Donald Trump won the Republican primary because the Republican Party is broken. Years of disdain – for moderation, for compromise, for governance, expertise, and conventional qualifications – have merged with long-exploited currents of bigotry to produce an electorate primed for a man like Donald Trump. Republicans put a Trump-like figure on the 2008 presidential ticket, backed Trump-like figures in the 2012 primaries, and even solicited Trump himself for an endorsement that same year. It was only a matter of time before Republican voters clamored for the real deal.
If you trace Trump to institutional failure within the Republican Party, then it’s hard to say he can scramble the general electorate like he did the primary one.
Hapless liberals can now feel a lot better. That absurdly outrageous stuff only works on a Republican base that was actually trained to love that stuff – a fired-up subset of the somewhat larger Republican Party. They Republicans broke their own party. That’s their problem, not anyone else’s.
That’s a comfort to those on the other side, even more of a comfort is reporting in the New York Times, from Ashley Parker and Maggie Haberman, that Donald Trump’s campaign cannot seem to make the transition to the general election:
A constant stream of changes and scuffles are unsettling Donald J. Trump’s campaign team, including the abrupt dismissal this week of his national political director.
A sense of paranoia is growing among his campaign staff members, including some who have told associates they believe that their Trump Tower offices in New York may be bugged, according to three people briefed on the conversations.
And there is confusion among his donors, who want to give money to a “super PAC” supporting Mr. Trump, but have received conflicting signals from top aides about which one to support.
Chaos is not helpful, and it comes from him:
Inside his campaign, the limits of his managerial style – reliant on his gut and built around his unpredictable personality – are vividly on display, according to interviews with nearly a dozen Republicans inside and outside of the operation.
Two months after assurances that the candidate would become “more presidential” and transition to a more unifying phase of his campaign, Mr. Trump continues to act as if the primary is still underway. His team has struggled to fill top positions, such as communications director, and Mr. Trump has made clear he still sees himself as his own chief adviser.
This week, Mr. Trump fired Rick Wiley, his national political director, after Mr. Wiley clashed with campaign officials in three states. And while fights among aides are not unusual, the daily leaks of damaging information from his campaign are prompting worry among Republican officials.
“Candidate Trump needs to better understand that he is now the titular head of the GOP,” said Scott W. Reed, senior political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “His words and actions will have an impact on the over 6,000 GOP candidates running for office – from federal races down to the courthouse.”
He may be a master wheeler-dealer, but he seems to be a lousy manager, and a bit sensitive about that:
Asked for comment about his management style, and the current state of his campaign, Mr. Trump declined, criticizing the reporters writing this article. “You two wouldn’t know how to write a good story about me if you tried – dream on,” Mr. Trump said in an email relayed by his spokeswoman, Hope Hicks.
Yeah, what do these two gals know about management anyway? They wouldn’t know brilliant management if it bit them in the ass.
They don’t say what they know, they only report what they found when they asked around about the guy:
His penchant for setting up competition and infusing tension between his subordinates has carried over from his real estate company.
“He certainly does love playing people against each other, but in my experience he knew how to make me reach my potential,” said Sam Nunberg, who was fired from the campaign in 2015 after a series of clashes with the campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. “You become very committed in that environment.”
But, as was the case with Mr. Wiley’s dismissal, Mr. Trump is reliant on information he garners himself, and can be swayed by the last person he talked to.
There’s a price to pay for that:
Mr. Trump has shown himself to be a masterly communicator, and his instincts, especially in identifying the issues that will animate voters, are shrewd. But the combat within the Trump campaign has undermined the daily messages the team seeks to promote. On Wednesday, for instance, Mr. Trump met with dozens of female chief executives and entrepreneurs before his afternoon rally in California, a meeting that was never publicized. Instead, the campaign sent out a message announcing Mr. Wiley’s dismissal.
The shake-up also hindered the campaign from pouncing on the tough day his likely Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, was having, on the heels of a State Department inspector general’s report on her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state.
“The drama in Trumpville this week,” Mr. Reed said, totally overtook the “devastating” report, which, he added, “should be all the country is talking about.”
Now the folks are telling these two “gals” that they’re worried about how he’ll do against Hillary Clinton, given what they see around them:
The Trump operation, for instance, has talked for weeks about hiring a full-time communications director, but has yet to bring anyone on board. Ms. Hicks is still the sole communications staff member. The Clinton campaign, by contrast, has a press team of more than a dozen, including people devoted solely to the news media for black and Hispanic audiences.
To complement its lean operation, the Trump campaign has begun relying on the Republican National Committee for everything from opposition research to communications help and voter data.
On Thursday, Mr. Trump expressed confidence that the RNC could take over for what he has not done himself.
“They built, over years and years, staffs in every state – you can’t do that, or you can’t do it very well, if you’re doing it all over the next few months,” Mr. Trump told reporters on Thursday in North Dakota. “You can’t do that over a period of just a short while, because we have November coming up very rapidly. It’s going to be very soon.”
Yet officials in battleground states have complained for weeks that the Republican committee has not delivered the promised resources for field organizations.
And there’s this:
Mr. Trump has also been dismissive of data analytics, suggesting in interviews that his showmanship and rallies will continue to be effective. He has suggested that he will compete in new states, despite the scant resources he has devoted to the traditional Republican map so far. And he has been adamant to aides that he intends to try to compete in New York, which no Republican has captured since Ronald Reagan, and has held discussions about hiring an additional pollster for the state.
Mr. Trump, who lent his campaign money during the primaries, has begun fund-raising for the general election, and there are signs that high-dollar donors are willing to help, especially by donating to a super PAC supporting him. But there are several such groups, and the campaign has yet to unofficially sanction one, leaving some donors confused about which super PAC, if any, they should support.
There are now two super PACs that have said they are the premier group supporting the presumptive nominee, neither of which Mr. Trump has given his blessing. Mr. Trump’s aides have held meetings about starting yet another super PAC, but so far they have not made moves.
And this is what they’re hearing:
Mr. Reed stressed that Mr. Trump needed to grow – and fast. “Trump is the King Kong of the GOP, and when he steps, the world rattles,” he said. “Trump needs to better fully appreciate and understand this new role.”
Hapless liberals can again feel a lot better. Donald Trump may blow it all and take the House and Senate down with him, handing both to the Democrats – from federal races down to the courthouse, disaster.
Jonathan Chait puts that this way:
Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States would pose an unprecedented threat to the health of American democracy and possibly world stability. There is, however, an upside: Trump’s campaign is an absolute garbage fire. By all accounts it is the most organizationally and strategically inept campaign for a successful major-party nominee in recorded history. …
His campaign staff is far too small, and yet constantly at war with itself, already having gone through multiple shakeups and coups. In keeping with his general disdain for data, Trump has eschewed any use of analytics to target voters or competitive areas. Indeed, he has fixated bizarrely on plans to compete in New York and California, two states where any Republican faces hopeless odds against an entrenched Democratic electorate. He is currently in North Dakota for reasons nobody fully understands. He attacks fellow Republicans for no apparent reason. The super-Pac donors who are supposed to be raising money on his behalf are disorganized and confused about basic questions like which super-Pac they’re supposed to donate to.
To the extent that running a competent campaign matters, it will hurt Trump very badly.
So, really, this guy is not unstoppable:
Yes, he won the Republican primary by relying on a massive imbalance of media coverage and exploiting a divided, extremely large field that failed to coalesce against him. Yes, he tapped into deep strains of anger in the conservative base that fellow Republicans ignored. But he’s not a political savant, and he hasn’t abolished the rules of politics. He’s a reality-television performer who tapped into a deep vein of cultural resentment which appeals to a decided minority of the electorate.
Fortunately, many of the same qualities that would make Trump epically dangerous in the presidency – his impulsive ignorance, blustering arrogance, and contempt for data – also make him unlikely to obtain it.
Ah, but he still has that Republican base, unless he doesn’t. The Washington Post’s Katie Zezima reports this:
It’s been a busy week for conservative social issues: South Carolina passed a law barring almost all abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation, 11 states sued the Obama administration over its transgender directives and the House is fighting over legislation affecting gays and lesbians.
Absent from the flurry of activity? Donald Trump.
Social issues continue to roil Republican politics, but they are largely missing from the presidential campaign of a candidate who shows little interest in abortion, religious liberty and other topics most important to social conservatives.
Instead, those debates are flaring in the House and on the state level, where conservatives are pressing ahead with legislation to enact sharper restrictions on abortion, roll back protections for gays, lesbians and transgender people, and declare pornography a public health crisis, among other measures. Trump, meanwhile, focuses on his controversial proposals to deport illegal immigrants, dismantle trade deals and build a massive wall on the southern border.
He may lose these people:
Trump has barely weighed in on many issues important to religious conservatives and has often modified his positions when he has – issuing an array of evolving remarks on abortion, transgender rights and other topics.
The dynamic could affect the presidential campaign in unpredictable ways. Will Trump move further to the right on divisive social issues to please evangelicals, making his path to victory more difficult in the general election? Or will he alienate social conservatives by taking more moderate positions – or even just by shrugging the issues off – potentially depressing turnout in November?
To Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, there is relatively little daylight between Trump and likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton on many social issues.
“Really, what we have now at the presidential level is two sexual revolutionary parties,” Moore said. “And that’s one of the reasons why there’s a great deal of demoralization among social conservatives right now.”
Trump is in a bind here, but the Republican Party long ago lit a fire under these social conservatives – they needed their votes to achieve what Karl Rove predicted would be a “permanent Republican majority” – and all that did was break the party too. Hapless liberals can now feel a whole lot better, even if all they have to offer the nation is the deeply flawed but basically competent Hillary Clinton. That’s the reality check here. Donald Trump is not inevitable. He’s preposterously impossible. Keep calm and carry on.
So, this has been another episode of “Hapless Liberals Try to Make Themselves Feel Better” – which may or may not be a comedy. Tune in next week for another episode.